Kuveni: The Yaksha lady


Kuveni: The Yaksha lady

By Amal Hewavissenti

Kuveni or Kuvanna stands out as the first woman known in Sri Lanka who tragically risked tougher ostracism by her own tribe and later by her alien husband in her endeavour to bring the whole community under a unified country. The popular tradition connects her lineage to a tribe of humans called ‘Yakshas’ who were largely distinguished by their genetically determined deformities and supposed barbarism. The lady has been well aware of the immediate tribal expulsion mounted a major resistance to her people in her dramatic bid to make Prince Vijaya the ruler of Sri Lanka. Yet her human role and importance are often underplayed by writers of Mahavamsa and Rajawali because her non-Aryan origin has offended their sense of cultural superiority. Instead, she is portrayed as an Amazon or a Yakshani of a cannibalistic tribe of natives who were residing in ‘Lankapura’ and ‘Sirisavastupura’ of Sri Lanka. So, who were these ‘Yakshas’?

The concept of Yaksha

Primitive people attributed the status of God (divine power) to natural phenomena that fell beyond the boundaries of their level of understanding. Some people worshipped ‘Yakshas’ in serious invocation to free them of illness, epidemics, disappointment or destruction. Indian and Sri Lankan painters depict Yakshas as dark cannibals with long curly hair, protruding red eyes, double canine teeth, and a strong body with a big belly.

They unconditionally symbolized uninterrupted havoc and destruction to humans. It is interesting to note that the people who pinned strong faith in Yakshas came to be called Yakshas.
These humans who had an ethnic origin from Ostroloids were chiefly distinguished by the short and sturdy body, thick eyebrows, dark complexion, thick hair, and thick lips. The Aryans who established their power across India harassed these ‘non-Aryan’ dark-skinned natives and chased them to the wilderness of India and Sri Lanka.
It is totally safe to conclude that such fugitive natives in jungles used to destroy those who entered the jungles and came to be labelled as man-eating Yakshas.

That is precisely why the masterminds behind the epics and mythology state that Yakshas who live in jungles wreak havoc on Aryan people who were gradually encroaching on their jungles. However, they were presumably a group of non-Aryan people who had organized themselves as a tribe and had the practice of human sacrifice to gods they believed in. The natives who were in Sri Lanka when Prince Vijaya in exile disembarked on the island, supposedly descended from those who had fled from India and were having their settlements in Kelaniya, the area associated with Aruwi Aru and Jaffna peninsula. There is concrete proof to show that Yakshas had the practice of worshipping Chiththaraja, Chethiya, Waishravana and Kalawela who had earlier been politically prominent figures in Sri Lanka.

Yakshas in the island

The greek and Hindu mythology, epics and Jathaka tales seem to have influenced the writer of Mahavamsa in his belief that Sri Lanka was inhabited by cannibalistic Yaksha people as Vijaya set foot on the shores of ‘Thambapanni’.

According to the Mahavamsa, Kuveni fed Vijaya and his outcasts with food that she had plundered from a ship and she had gobbled up the people on the ship.

The first serious challenge that Vijaya was confronted with, was to find food to sustain themselves in a completely alien land because they had been banished from India as outlaws charged with a capital offence. Therefore, it can safely be presumed that Kuveni has been highly supportive of Vijaya in obtaining food from the native people. Yakshas and other ethnic tribes immigrated to the island in the pre-Vedic epoch from Indo valley civilization and they brought their cultural identity and ethics to Sri Lanka.

Mahavamsa seems to have employed a legend of Vijaya and Kuveni that has been blended with the supernatural element in Homeric epics, Valahassa Jathaka and Hindu mythology.

Homeric influence

Ramayana and Mahabharatha maintain a surprising parallel with Homeric epics Illiad and Odyssey that was composed around 950 BC in Greece. The tales of superhuman and demoniac women in epics by Homer permeated to the east through the invasions of Alexander the Great and the uninterrupted arrivals of Greek and Arabian traders to India.

This was, above all, a type of cultural exchange between the east and the west. It appears fair to say that strange islands of hideous Scylla and the one-eyed cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey and similar tales have moulded certain incidents in Valahassa Jathaka and a larger portion of Kuveni’s story in the Mahavamsa.

Strange island

The Valahassa Jathaka of Jathaka collection, probably influenced by supernatural tales in Homer’s Odyssey, has an eerie parallel to the Kuveni legend in the Mahavamsa. The tale revolves around an Indian tradesman called ‘Sinhala’ who arrives at the North-Western coast of Sri Lanka where cannibalistic Yaksha ladies live.

The cannibal women in Thammennawa lure the sailors and secretly eat them up after a false marriage of a few days. They conjure up a green environment on the coast and the sailors are lured into the trap of women who appear as overwhelmingly attractive young ladies. The story goes on to say that the leader of the demoniac ladies tricks the leader of the tradesmen into marrying her.

“Sinhala” secretly keeps awake to the movements of the woman who becomes cold in the dead of night. On close observation, he notes that she leaves the bed every night to prey on humans and return to bed unnoticed. “Sinhala” is able to understand who the women are and after much persuasion, he manages to take half the number of men back to India and others who had refused to perish on the hellish island.

The modern scholars identify Hingoor of Gujarat as Vijaya’s native place. This is the Mahavamsa version of Vijaya and Kuveni. Prince Vijaya, who has plundered the kingdom of his father and inhumanly harassed people, is subject of the king’s fury and is exiled together with seven-hundred rowdy men. At this time, Sri Lanka (Thambapanni) is inhabited by man-eating Amazons and a tribe of Yakshas.

These women are said to have played shrewd diplomatic games on sailors and destroy them by varied viles. Vijaya sees Kuveni as an ascetic woman spinning cotton under a tree near a pond. Popular tradition says that Kuveni tactfully imprisons some of Vijaya’s people before his encounter with her and be overpowers her with death threats.
Here Kuveni’s intention to get total power over her community is transparent because she is ready to marry an alien prince and carry him to effortless victory in gaining mastery over the native Yakshas.
She is well aware of her treachery to her tribe of Yakshas by nurturing great ambitions to be the princes of an alien prince with absolute power over Thambapanni. She is struck with the home truth that she would meet death at the hands of the chiefs of Yakshas and Vijaya is her sole protection.

Vijaya kills the unarmed yakshas who are celebrating the marriage of Yaksha chief of ‘Sirisavastupura’ to a daughter of the chief of ‘Lankapura”. Once Vijaya becomes the ruler of Thambapanni, he is trapped in the moral dilemma in announcing his marriage with a non-Aryan Yaksha lady. Be that as it may, it is Kuveni who has elevated him to the leadership of the island through high level of sacrifice. However, she is inhumanly and selfishly betrayed and abandoned by the prince and this has been approved by the writer of Mahavamsa who seems to speak in total condemnation of Kuveni’s non-Aryan descent.

Kuveni – purely human

In spite of all this, the Mahavamsa has depicted her physical nature to resemble that of humans than that of a cannibalistic ogress. however, a close analysis of her character shows that she is a sensitive woman who is distinguished by her largely unspoiled fidelity to her husband, love for her children’s ability to raise children with motherly care and sensitivity. Like any other lady, she seems to have been naturally mesmerized by the alien prince’s vibrant personality and been intent on keeping him as her lifelong partner – a tendency that shows that she has her own hazy but idealized notions of a good marriage.

But her non-Aryan descent, complexion, and her association with the Yaksha tribe make her fall prey to strong condemnation by Vijaya’s companions. She is a woman who, beyond all doubt, has been pitched into the pathetic confrontation of her own judgment of a newfound selfish lover with the desertion of her own kith and kin.

The prince insensitively banishes his own queen and children in his dilemma to match the expectation of Aryan ideals or to be a king with a
‘non-Aryan’ queen.

She appeals to Vijaya to protect her for life and shows no hesitation in sacrificing the heritage of her own kith and kin to the hands of a totally outlandish man with all her trust placed on him. She is again pitched into a peculiar predicament when Vijaya turns her out of the palace with the children and exposes her to the brutal hatred of her relations who has already labelled her a traitress to their cause and motherland.
In spite of all misinterpretations of her, she was still a human being – a married woman abandoned by everyone and wronged by everyone.

Kuveni or Kuvanna stands out as the first woman known in Sri Lanka who tragically risked tougher ostracism by her own tribe and later by her alien husband in her endeavour to bring the whole community under a unified country. The popular tradition connects her lineage to a tribe of humans called ‘Yakshas’ who were largely distinguished by their genetically determined deformities and supposed barbarism. The lady has been well aware of the immediate tribal expulsion mounted a major resistance to her people in her dramatic bid to make Prince Vijaya the ruler of Sri Lanka. Yet her human role and importance are often underplayed by writers of Mahavamsa and Rajawali because her non-Aryan origin has offended their sense of cultural superiority. Instead, she is portrayed as an Amazon or a Yakshani of a cannibalistic tribe of native who was residing in ‘Lankapura’ and ‘Sirisavastupura’ of Sri Lanka. So, who were these ‘Yakshas’?The concept of YakshaPrimitive people attributed the status of God (divine power) to natural phenomena that fell beyond the boundaries of their level of understanding. Some people worshipped ‘Yakshas’ in serious invocation to free them of illness, epidemics, disappointment or destruction. Indian and Sri Lankan painters depict Yakshas as dark cannibals with long curly hair, protruding red eyes, double canine teeth, and a strong body with a big belly.They unconditionally symbolized uninterrupted havoc and destruction to humans. It is interesting to note that the people who pinned strong faith in Yakshas came to be called Yakshas.These humans who had an ethnic origin from Ostroloids were chiefly distinguished by the short and sturdy body, thick eyebrows, dark complexion, thick hair, and thick lips. The Aryans who established their power across India harassed these ‘non-Aryan’ dark-skinned natives and chased them to the wilderness of India and Sri Lanka.It is totally safe to conclude that such fugitive natives in jungles used to destroy those who entered the jungles and came to be labelled as man-eating Yakshas. That is precisely why the masterminds behind the epics and mythology state that Yakshas who live in jungles wreak havoc on Aryan people who were gradually encroaching on their jungles. However, they were presumably a group of non-Aryan people who had organized themselves as a tribe and had the practice of human sacrifice to gods they believed in.

The natives who were in Sri Lanka when Prince Vijaya in exile disembarked on the island, supposedly descended from those who had fled from India and were having their settlements in Kelaniya, the area associated with Aruwi Aru and Jaffna peninsula. There is concrete proof to show that Yakshas had the practice of worshipping Chiththaraja, Chethiya, Waishravana and Kalawela who had earlier been politically prominent figures in Sri Lanka. Yakshas in the island Greek and Hindu mythology, epics and Jathaka tales seem to have influenced the writer of Mahavamsa in his belief that Sri Lanka was inhabited by cannibalistic Yaksha people as Vijaya set foot on the shores of ‘Thambapanni’. According to the Mahavamsa, Kuveni fed Vijaya and his outcasts with food that she had plundered from a ship and she had gobbled up the people on the ship.

The first serious challenge that Vijaya was confronted with, was to find food to sustain themselves in a completely alien land because they had been banished from India as outlaws charged with a capital offence. Therefore, it can safely be presumed that Kuveni has been highly supportive of Vijaya in obtaining food from the native people. Yakshas and other ethnic tribes immigrated to the island in the pre-Vedic epoch from Indo valley civilization and they brought their cultural identity and ethics to Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa seems to have employed a legend of Vijaya and Kuveni that has been blended with the supernatural element in Homeric epics, Valahassa Jathaka and Hindu mythology.

Homeric influence

Ramayana and Mahabharatha maintain a surprising parallel with Homeric epics Illiad and Odyssey that were composed around 950 BC in Greece. The tales of superhuman and demoniac women in epics by Homer permeated to the east through the invasions of Alexander the Great and the uninterrupted arrivals of Greek and Arabian traders to India.This was, above all, a type of cultural exchange between the east and the west. It appears fair to say that strange islands of hideous Scylla and the one-eyed cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey and similar tales have moulded certain incidents in Valahassa Jathaka and a larger portion of Kuveni’s story in the Mahavamsa.

Strange Island Valahassa Jathaka of Jathaka collection, probably influenced by supernatural tales in Homer’s Odyssey, has an eerie parallel to the Kuveni legend in the Mahavamsa. The tale revolves around an Indian tradesman called ‘Sinhala’ who arrives at the North-Western coast of Sri Lanka where cannibalistic Yaksha ladies live. The cannibal women in Thammennawa lure the sailors and secretly eat them up after a false marriage of a few days. They conjure up a green environment on the coast and the sailors are lured into the trap of women who appear as overwhelmingly attractive young ladies. The story goes on to say that the leader of the demoniac ladies tricks the leader of the tradesmen into marrying her.” Sinhala” secretly keeps awake to the movements of the woman who becomes cold in the dead of night. On close observation, he notes that she leaves the bed every night to prey on humans and return to bed unnoticed. “Sinhala” is able to understand who the women are and after much persuasion, he manages to take half the number of men back to India and others who had refused to perish on the hellish island. The modern scholars identify Hingoor of Gujarat as Vijaya’s native place.

This is the Mahavamsa version of Vijaya and Kuveni. Prince Vijaya, who has plundered the kingdom of his father and inhumanly harassed people, is subject of the king’s fury and is exiled together with seven-hundred rowdy men. At this time, Sri Lanka (Thambapanni) is inhabited by man-eating Amazons and a tribe of Yakshas. These women are said to have played shrewd diplomatic games on sailors and destroy them by varied viles. Vijaya sees Kuveni as an ascetic woman spinning cotton under a tree near a pond. Popular tradition says that Kuveni tactfully imprisons some of Vijaya’s people before his encounter with her and be overpowers her with death threats. Here Kuveni’s intention to get total power over her community is transparent because she is ready to marry an alien prince and carry him to effortless victory in gaining mastery over the native Yakshas. She is well aware of her treachery to her tribe of Yakshas by nurturing great ambitions to be the princes of an alien prince with absolute power over Thambapanni. She is struck with the home truths that she would meet death at the hands of the chiefs of Yakshas and Vijaya is her sole protection.

Vijaya kills the unarmed yakshas who are celebrating the marriage of Yaksha chief of ‘Sirisavastupura’ to a daughter of the chief of ‘Lankapura”. Once Vijaya becomes the ruler of Thambapanni, he is trapped in the moral dilemma in announcing his marriage with a non-Aryan Yaksha lady. Be that as it may, it is Kuveni who has elevated him to the leadership of the island through a high level of sacrifice. However, she is inhumanly and selfishly betrayed and abandoned by the prince and this has been approved by the writer of Mahavamsa who seems to speak in total condemnation of Kuveni’s non-Aryan descent.

Kuveni – purely human.

In spite of all this, the Mahavamsa has depicted her physical nature to resemble that of humans than that of a cannibalistic ogress. however, a close analysis of her character shows that she is a sensitive woman who is distinguished by her largely unspoiled fidelity to her husband, love for her children’s ability to raise children with motherly care and sensitivity. Like any other lady, she seems to have been naturally mesmerized by the alien prince’s vibrant personality and been intent on keeping him as her lifelong partner – a tendency that shows that she has her own hazy but idealized notions of a good marriage. But her non-Aryan descent, complexion, and her association with the Yaksha tribe make her fall prey to strong condemnation by Vijaya’s companions. She is a woman who, beyond all doubt, has been pitched into a pathetic confrontation of her own judgment of a newfound selfish lover with the desertion of her own kith and kin. The prince insensitively banishes his own queen and children in his dilemma to match the expectation of Aryan ideals or to be a king with a ‘non-Aryan’ queen. She appeals to Vijaya to protect her for life and shows no hesitation in sacrificing the heritage of her own kith and kin to the hands of a totally outlandish man with all her trust placed on him. She is again pitched into a peculiar predicament when Vijaya turns her out of the palace with the children and exposes her to the brutal hatred of her relations who has already labelled her a traitress to their cause and motherland. In spite of all misinterpretations of her, she was still a human being – a married woman abandoned by everyone and wronged by everyone.

http://archives.sundayobserver.lk/2010/10/10/imp04.asp
About editor 2093 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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